Back | Next

Chapter Five

We came into Fun Country from the beach side, and I left Mr. Ignat’ at Keltic Knot, stopping for a minute to admire the gleam and glitter of the ride in the sunlight.

“It’s looking good,” I said, putting one foot up on the safety rail, and propping my elbows on the top. “Better than ever.”

“Elbow grease,” Mr. Ignat’ told me, slipping inside the fence—his prerogative as owner-operator. “Elbow grease and virtuous living.”

“Well, that sinks me,” I said, smiling at the dragon-headed lead car. The carved eyes sparkled life-like, the scales adorning her long, graceful neck were sharp-edged and distinct. The whole ride looked new-made, as if it had partaken of, and prospered from, Mr. Ignat’s increased circumstances.

Which isn’t really that far-fetched an idea, now is it, Kate? I asked myself.

I straightened up from my lean on the fence and raised a hand.

“I’ll see you Saturday morning,” I called.

“I’ll be there!” He vanished behind the dragon.

I strolled off, past the Scrambler, its silver gondolas flashing in the sun like the real thing, the plastic cushions glowing like old crimson leather.

It being Thursday, and not yet Season, the park was pretty much deserted. Jess Robald was bucking the trend, bent over Tom Thumb’s open engine with a screwdriver in one hand. I waved as I strolled past.

“Hey, Kate!” she called, straightening up and moving to the fence.

“Hey,” I answered, making the slight detour. I put my hands on the rail and looked up into her face. “How’s it going?”

“Going good. Well.” She jerked her head at the dismantled engine behind her. “Going okay. If I can get the stack blowing smoke again, that’ll notch us back up to ‘good.’” She shrugged and gave me grin. “My dad always did say I was a perfectionist. Train runs fine without the smoke, and what do the kids know, anymore? But it’s meant to blow smoke and I ain’t happy unless it does as it’s meant.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

“Guess you do. How’s it going with finding a replacement?”

“Got one due in this afternoon.”

She grinned, genuinely delighted. “That’s great! Listen—why I called you over. There’s a group of us getting together to talk about ways to lengthen the Season. Twelve weeks ain’t enough to live on—townies or town! Thought you might like to be there—gonna be a breakfast meetin’ up the Garden Monday ’round eight o’clock.”

“The Garden?” I repeated.

“Garden Cafe; new place up the hill. The place is new, I’m saying. The owner—well, hell—Michelle’s been on the Beach since she come up as summer help, back a time, now. Summer got over, Michelle stayed. Worked short-order for Bob that first winter, went to the Bouy next Season, then down the Brunswick—guess she’s cooked in every restaurant in town, over years. Finally decided to start her own. Been open couple months now. Business was slow at first, but it’s started picking up in the last five, six weeks.”

“Five or six weeks,” I echoed, around a funny feeling in my stomach.

Jess nodded. “Takes time for word to get out—but it’s sure out now!”

“Terrific,” I said, my voice sounding weak in my own ears.

“Be good if you came by, Kate,” Jess said, and added. “Marilyn says the park can’t get involved in town business. Says Fun Country’s Season is set by the Board.”

Fun Country’s Board is in New Jersey, and they hadn’t had one bit of trouble giving Marilyn the okay for the Super Early Season, once the sweet smell of money wafted under their pointy noses.

“Marilyn’ll get on board after everybody else does the work,” I said. “If we build a longer, better Season, you bet Fun Country’s going to be open for it.”

Jess thought about that, her head tipped to one side.

“I can see that, I guess,” she said. “But you’ll come by on Monday?”

One of the very few benefits of no longer being regularly employed by a dotcom is the utter lack of meetings in my life. I hated the damn’ things.

On the other hand…

Oh, what the hell, I thought, and nodded at Jess.

“Sure, I’ll come by, and have a cup of coffee.”

You’d’ve thought I’d given her a pony.

“That’s great! That’s—well.” She got her grin under control, and gave me an enthusiastic nod. “I won’t keep you any more, but—see you Monday, then!”

“See you Monday,” I agreed, wondering what I’d just gotten myself into, and continued my interrupted trek across the park.

Fun Country’s Early Season hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. That meant things would start waking up around 11:30 tomorrow morning: the empty rides would cycle through their paces, slow and tempting; the arcade’s metal doors would go up—rattle, bang, slam!—the avenue games would light up; the fortune-teller would hang out her shingle; the t-shirt shop owner would prop the door open with a big old piece of rose quartz, and the barkers would start humming their patter.

By noon, Fun Country would welcome maybe a dozen visitors, all adults. By five o’clock, after school let out and the kids were on the prowl, the place would be a madhouse.

Saturday, they’d be climbing the fence by ten. Ka-Pow!, the arcade, which had its own door onto Fountain Circle, might open up as early as 10:15 on an Early Season Saturday, keeping the gates between it and Fun Country shut tight until Marilyn Michaud, the park manager, hit the air horn two blasts, which was the signal to open ’er up.

Marilyn’s a woman who likes her Ts crossed, her Is dotted, and her clock keeping good time. The thought of all those dollar bills being spent early in the arcade was a powerful motivator, though, and more often than not Fun Country was open for Saturday business by 10:30.

Sunday was the only day of the three when the noon rule was good; an inverted day: crowds early, and the park deserted by 8:30 in the evening.

It wasn’t a convenient schedule, and it didn’t earn anybody what you’d call a living wage, but it did bring in coffee money. In the past, the Early Season had been the shakedown run—the dress rehearsal for the Season—when rides were fine-tuned, and patter refined; when the summer greenies who minded the hoop-shoot, the duck-pick and the lobster-toss perfected their skill with the game, and the guy who guessed weights and age practiced on everybody who walked by.

I passed the log flume, dry until tomorrow, and crossed the service alley to Baxter Avenue. The lights were on at Dodge City, but I didn’t see Millie around. The giant samurai astride the roof of the Oriental Funhouse was silent, his swords sheathed at his back. Summer’s Wheel was locked down, the gondolas swinging slightly in the breeze.

When the park’s closed, the carousel’s snug and safe behind padlocked gray steel storm gates. I used my key, slipped the lock through one loop and snapped it shut before I stepped inside, leaving the door standing wide behind me.

There’s been a carousel in Archers Beach for coming on a hundred ten years. Not the same carousel, of course. This carousel—what you might call my carousel—has been in its current location for just under eighty-five years. Before that—from 1902 through 1923, it stood at the center of what was then called Sea Side Park.

A couple fires later, and the carousel was still standing, one of Fun Country’s treasured “name” rides: The Fantasy Menagerie Carousel.

A menagerie, in carousel-terms, means a ride that gives animals that aren’t horses equal time—you might get a pig, a stag, or a tiger, on a menagerie carousel; rarely, there’ll be no horses at all.

On a fantasy menagerie, you’ll not only see your non-equine mounts, but those out of mythology, too.

That being the case, the Fantasy Menagerie Carousel at Fun Country in Archers Beach, Maine, presents, when fully populated, twenty-three wooden animals: four traditional horses, fifteen critters of land and sea, and four fantasy figures, plus a swan chariot.

Beg pardon.

Three fantasy figures—dragon, unicorn, and hippocampus. The fourth fantasy figure—a dainty grey horse with delicate fangs and business-like bat wings—that was the figure that had flown the coop.

Soon to be replaced by a fiberglass rooster.

That…it just wasn’t right.

I had paused by the safety rail, my fingers curled ’round the cool metal, seeing not the carousel, a shadowy wheel encompassing forever, but the batwing horse as I had last seen her—milky eyes and lithesome form; skin so dark it had been iridescent in the sunlight; and when she smiled, she showed dainty, pearly fangs.

The Opal of Dawn, princess of Daknowyth, the Land of Midnight.

I sighed sharply, pushed a section of crowd rail out of my way and crossed to the carousel, leaping lightly to the platform.

Before she had regained her true form—for that had been her true form, blind, far-seeing eyes, fangs, and all—before she had regained her true form, the Opal of Dawn had been bound into the batwing horse, one of six beings so imprisoned within the Fantasy Menagerie Carousel.

Or so I had been told.

It seems that Gran hadn’t been quite truthful with me about the whys and what-fors of the batwing horse’s presence on the carousel. She’d had her reasons—good reasons—and I supposed I had no call to complain about having been left in the dark. After all, I’d been a kid; and right when I was approaching an age where a fond grandmother might expect that I might know how to value a deep and deadly secret, I left home, deliberately abandoning my duty and my family.

And yet—it had almost got me killed, not knowing. My ignorance had almost destroyed the Beach.

I sighed sharply.

Still a lot to think about there, obviously.

Getting back to the business at hand…The batwing horse hadn’t been a particular favorite of mine while she was bound to the carousel—in fact, I hadn’t liked her…at all.

She’d redeemed herself at the last, though—and stood a brave comrade when I’d needed her most.

Which was, I guess, why I missed her now, and felt a tug of real sadness as I came to stand in the spot she had occupied.

I shook my head, and pivoted slowly on a heel.

To the rear of my position were the bear and the giraffe. Ahead was the dolphin and the deer. To my immediate right, on the outside circle of standers, was the ostrich.

Well, a rooster would fit right in, I thought, but I didn’t grin at my own joke.

Instead, I walked down the carousel, touching the animals as I passed, testing the poles, the bindings…

…and the bindings.

The remaining five prisoners inhabit the hippocampus, unicorn, goat, the knight’s charger, and the wolf. I don’t know anything about them, other than they’d committed crimes so heinous that their home Lands had repudiated them and turned them over to the Wise for disposition. And the Wise, after such discoveries and deliberations as they deemed useful, if any, had bound them, all five, into the carousel.

If that sounds daft to you, well…that’s the Wise.

The Wise are the final arbiters and dispensers of justice across the Six Worlds, and most sensible folk in any world would rather cut off their good right arm than have anything at all to do with them. Only the most desperate cases go to the Wise for adjudication, and their judgment, no matter how seemingly crazy, is final.

That ought to give you a reading, right there, on exactly how badass the beings bound into those wooden animals are.

As to why they’re bound into this particular carousel

Our world—the Real World, as we call it—is the last and least of the Six in terms of the things that count—according, you understand, to the good citizens of the Upper Five. We’re not only low on jikinap, we’re damn low on anybody who thinks that’s a problem.

The reason there’s so little magic here—that’s what excited the interest of the Wise, and why Gran’s carousel was turned into a prison.

Jikinap needs a certain stability; a lack of motion, so that it can pool, ferment, and reduce into the sticky, needy, almost-substance that’s the common tool of all Ozali, across all the Worlds.

Here at home in the Changing Land, there’s just too much going on, all the time; the magic doesn’t have very many cozy deep places to settle into and stew.

Not only is the Land in motion, but, well…

Like the name says: Things change here.

Which brings us to the Grand Experiment of The Wise.

If the prisoners were bound, for a period of time unknown, but assumed to be long, in the eye of a change-storm…

…would they, too, change?

Would they change enough—and in a…more seemly direction?

I didn’t precisely know how long the prisoners had been incarcerated, though I’d gotten the impression from Gran that it had been what we Mainers dignify as a good long while. How long it had been since anybody from The Wise’s central office had stopped by to check on them was anybody’s guess.

Personally, I was betting that nobody had ever checked on them.

I should, I thought, standing again in the place the batwing horse had occupied for all of my memory of the carousel—before she left for her own Land again, I should have asked her, the Opal of Dawn, if she had Changed.

A shadow flickered across my sight; I turned, glancing up—

“Kate?” A woman’s voice echoed off the steel roof and walls. “You home?”

“Nancy?” I moved across the platform until she could see me from her position just inside the open door. “C’mon in!”

She did that, moving easy and boneless, like a cat on casual hunt. Slipping through the gap I’d left in the security fence, she hopped up onto the platform and gave me a nod, easing the gimme hat up with a nudge of her forefinger.

“Stopping by to see about Season hours, if you’re gonna need me.” She cast an appraising eye up and around the boards and the brass work.

“Lookin’ good,” she said, soft enough to have been talking to herself. She met my eye and said it again, louder, and with emphasis.

“Lookin’ damn good.”

“What can I say? You do good work.”

Nancy had been my pre-Super-Early-Season prep crew, bringing the mechanicals up to spec after a winter of idleness, polishing the brass, putting in the lights, threading the paper through the orchestrion, and every other bit of fiddly, necessary work that needed to be done, with the exception of anything that touched on the carousel critters themselves.

Smart woman, Nancy Vois.

She’d stayed on as part-time carousel operator for the Super Early Season. The Early Season being what it was, I didn’t have much need of her. Still, a good employee is worth holding onto, and I’d offered to split what hours there were, right down the middle, or any other way she liked it.

But, it happened that she didn’t like any Early Season hours. She had work as a casual mechanic at the Little Egret Marina up on Casco Bay, working side-hours and off-shifts for cash money under the table.

“Marina doesn’t need you during the Season?”

She lifted a skinny shoulder and let it fall.

“Marina needs extra hands at the start and end of their Season, to put the boats in the water, and take ’em out again. Reg’lar yard crew can handle it from now on t’Labor Day.”

“Well, I’ll be pleased to have you, like I said before. How many hours you need and what’s your rate of pay?”

She shook her head and shoved her hands into the front pockets of her jeans as she took up a lean against a brass pole.

“Management’s s’posed to decide that stuff.”

“Let’s say I’m grooming you to take my place.”

She snorted delicately, then directed her gaze over my head, like she was taking counsel of the canopy lights.

“Now, see, I can always use hours. My experience is everybody can always use hours. If it was up t’me, looking at the ride open seventy-six hours across seven days, an’ Management with paperwork and suchlike on top of that, I’d be thinking…”

She brought her eyes down from the heights to meet mine.

“You hiring a greenie?”

The greenies come in on a general contract with the Archers Beach Chamber of Commerce, and hail from places like Ukraine and Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They work as housekeepers in the motels, as waitstaff—and as game agents and ride operators at Fun Country. The arrangement between the hiring agency and the CoC is one of long standing, and it generally, as far as I knew, worked well for all concerned.

And it wasn’t like Maine college kids wanted to come down to Archers Beach to work a lousy twelve-week season, when they could go down to Atlantic City, Rehobeth Beach, or Cape May for a longer Season, and better pay—not to mention warmer water.

I shrugged. “The park sent ’round a letter, asking us all to take on a kid or three. Frankly, I wanted to talk with you first. If you weren’t interested, I was going to bring on a kid for the early afternoons, and figure on sleeping when the Season’s over.”

Nancy nodded judiciously. “Could be done that way. Now, what I’ve got in mind would get the work done, wouldn’t nobody get killed, and we’d do a greenie a good turn.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Getcher greenie in noon to four, when it’s quiet, mostly. The Park feeds ’em lunch, and they get the hours on their card. The two of us’ll split the night shift, when there’s more likely to be trouble.” She looked owlish. “Since we’re able to handle trouble.”

I was able to handle trouble, given one thing and another. Nancy? Well…yeah. I’d seen Nancy go after trouble six times her size, dig her claws in and hold on tight.

“It’s a plan,” I said. “The greenie’s pay is set by contract, and the Park matches half. What rate are you looking at for yourself?”

She pursed her lips.

“You sure I’m cut out for Management?”

“You’re doing fine.”

“Well.” She sighed. “I’m thinking the arrangement we had during the Super Early Season was advantageous.”

Nancy’s Super Early Season pay had been a percentage of the net. Given that the Super Early Season had been completely new, and nobody’d known what to expect, that had sort of made sense. The regular Season, though…

“I’ve been going over the financials for the last couple years and income’s been on a steady decline. I’d feel better giving you a set wage. Twenty percent—”

“Fifteen,” she put in.

“—of Not Much is Pretty Near Nothing. If we settle on three hundred a week, then you know what’s coming. And!” I pushed on, seeing she was about to say something else. “Wages are a business expense for Management.”

“Things’re looking up,” Nancy said. “I think the Super Early Season was the start of luckier times comin’. Fifteen percent’s fair. You can pay me extra for any repairs that need doing.”

“Twenty percent,” I said, giving her an ice princess stare right down my nose. “And extra for repairs.”

Nancy gave as good as she got on the stare. Used to run a Harley in a pack, did Nancy. Funny how the skills we learn young stay with us.

“You’re insulting me, Kate. Fifteen percent or I walk.”

Well, I knew when I was licked.

“You drive a hard bargain. Fifteen, it is. Extra for repairs.”

I stuck my hand out.


We shook on it, and Nancy looked ’round my shoulder.

“Still nothing to replace her?”

“Got something coming in this afternoon,” I said, giving her a grin. “You up for earning some repair money?”

“Depends on when it’s coming. I told Ma I’d be home ’bout five.”

“Should be here before that,” I said.

And right on cue there came a clanging noise, as if somebody was rattling the Park gate, and a man’s voice singing out loud and strong.

“Kate Archer? Delivery!”

Back | Next